Giacomo Leopardi: The Infinite (From Italian)

The Infinite
By Giacomo Leopardi
Translated by A.Z. Foreman
Click to hear me recite the original Italian

I always had a love for this lone hill,
and this hedge, too, which blocks so large a part
of the utmost horizon from my view.
But as I sit and ponder, limitless
spaces there are beyond it and unearthly
silences more than man's and deepest stillness

Which I shape in my thought, until the heart
is all but daunted. And, as I hear wind

rustling amid this foliage, I set that
infinite silence up against this voice
comparing them; and I recall the Eternal,
and the dead seasons and this season here

alive, the sound of it. And so my thought
Drowns in the midst of this immensity:
And sweet it is to shipwreck on this sea.

The Original:


Sempre caro mi fu quest'ermo colle,
e questa siepe, che da tanta parte
dell'ultimo orizzonte il guardo esclude.
Ma sedendo e mirando, interminati
spazi di là da quella, e sovrumani
silenzi, e profondissima quïete
io nel pensier mi fingo, ove per poco
il cor non si spaura. E come il vento
odo stormir tra queste piante, io quello
infinito silenzio a questa voce
vo comparando: e mi sovvien l'eterno,
e le morte stagioni, e la presente
e viva, e il suon di lei. Così tra questa
immensità s'annega il pensier mio:
e il naufragar m'è dolce in questo mare.

Pushkin: Advancing from the Rear (From Russian)

Here's another instance of Pushkin's obscene side, this one far less serious and far more jocular.

Advancing from the Rear
By A.S. Pushkin
Translated by A.Z. Foreman
Click to hear me recite the original Russian

Beside Istómina the dancer,
Lay naked general Orlóv.
When things got hot, this man in action
Was not much to take notice of.
Meaning no insult, that hetaera
Got out her magnifying glass
And said "Er, love...I'd really like to
See what you use to fuck my ass."


L1-4: Every nobleman in St. Petersburg was trying to get into the pants of the ballerina Avdotia Istomina, including one Alexander Pushkin. Though Pushkin never succeeded in bedding her, General Alexei Orlov (veteran of the Napoleonic wars and celebrated commander) managed to get the famously beautiful Istomina to have a fling with him. This, clearly, was not something Pushkin took well.
It was a common in-joke among aristocratic circles that Orlov, though brave and a skilled commander, was no great pistolero. In a pistol-duel with cavalryman Michael Lunin, Orlov missed the latter twice at a distance of twelve paces. Lunin, a crack shot, found this so sad and pathetic that he fired his two shots into the air and offered Orlov marksmanship lessons, a humiliation which neither Orlov nor the Russian aristocracy's gossipmongers ever forgot.

L5-8: The original Russian reads

Ne dúmav mílogo obídet',
Vzyalá Laísa mikroskóp
I govorít "Pozvól' uvídet',
Čem tï menyá, moy mílïy, yób."

(Not wishing to offend her darling
That Lais got the microscope 
And said "Would you mind if I see
What it was you used to fuck me, darling.")

Laísa "Lais" here is an allusion to Lais of Corinth and/or Lais of Hyccara, two famed ancient Greek courtesans (or perhaps they were the same person, we don't really know) whom "cultured" francophone Russians would have recognized, and whose use here would have been understood as a high-register, classical, Gallicizing euphemism for "ho, slut, skank". Paired with the very low-register iob "fuck", it immediately stands out as part of a high-low juxtaposition of the sort Pushkin was no stranger to. To emphasize just how striking the Russian verb would have been, and to mimick the comical rhyming of microskop "microscope" and iob "fuck", I have given Istomina a magnifying glass and made her take it up the ass, so to speak.


Орлов с Истоминой в постеле...
А.С. Пушкин

Орлов с Истоминой в постеле
В убогой наготе лежал.
Не отличился в жарком деле
Непостоянный генерал.
Не думав милого обидеть,
Взяла Лаиса микроскоп
И говорит: «Позволь увидеть,
Чем ты меня, мой милый, ёб».

Pushkin: The Wagon of Life (From Russian)

The ability to employ both "high" and "low" registers of language to contrastive effect is a feature not only of Pushkin's art but also his way of thinking and, to judge from the accounts of those who knew him, his personality as well. 
A woman who knew him, Alexandra Smirnova, remarked that he was quite the "lover of the obscene" (любитель непристойного). The diplomat Nikolai Kiselev, another of his acquaintances, (to whom Smirnova had made this remark about Pushkin) said "Unfortunately, I know as much, and have never been able to find an explanation for his incongruous way of shifting between the obscene and the sublime." (к несчастью, я это знаю и никогда не  мог  себе  объяснить  эту антитезу перехода от непристойного к возвышенному.)  
As Alyssa Gillespie noted in her article "Bawdy and Soul: Pushkin's Poetics of Obscenity"  
Both obscenity and sublimity involve the transcendence of mundane verbal formulas and meaningless clichés and both, therefore, serve Pushkin's uplifting poetic purpose of liberating human thought and self-expression 
Moreover as Gillespie, whose above-quoted article may be found in the excellent collection Taboo Pushkin, is well aware, this aspect of Pushkin's poetics and thought-processes has been neglected much by the scholarly community both Russian and non-Russian, and is generally unappreciated and unacknowledged as much by the translator as by the Russophone casual reader. Few indeed are the Russians who, in praising their national poet, would care to mention or be informed of the fact that he was fond of making jokes in verse about the size of somebody's dick one day, and write of angels and demons the next.
The poem translated here is an awesome example of Pushkin's willingness to blend the sublime/lofty and the obscene/vulgar, foregrounding an oft-neglected (and oft-avoided) aspect of the great poet's aesthetic. The poem is almost always censored in Russian print editions (I include the Russian text unbowdlerized and in the form in which Pushkin circulated it in manuscript), and when translated into English, German and French has had the profanity and colloquialism airbrushed out of it by translators and/or editors who lacked Pushkin's appreciation for linguistic variation. 

The Wagon of Life
By A.S. Pushkin

Whatever heavy load it carries,
The wagon's light on steppe and street.
Grey Time, the coachman, never wearies
And never leaves the driver's seat.

At dawn we jump inside the wagon,
Quite happy for our necks to break.
Scorning all soft delight and languor,
We yell "Get going, for fuck's sake!"

By noon we've lost that daring folly,
Being jerked around. We're wagon-sick
Afraid of every hill and gully,
And yell "Slow down, you lunatic!"

But on we rush round every bend.
We're used to it, come evening's yawn.
Heading to night, to journey's end,
We doze. Time drives the horses on. 


L7 and 8- Line 7 in the original Russian reads i preziráia len' i négu "and, disdaining indolence and sensuousness." The term nega "sensuousness", suggestive of creature comforts, leisure and sexual allure all at once, is one of those words that is curiously hard to render from Russian into English (as "disillusionment" and "privacy" are difficult to render into Russian.) As Nabokov puts it in his Onegin commentary:
Nega, with its emphasis on otiose euphoria and associations with softness, luxuriousness, tenderness is not exactly synonymous with sladostrastie "sweet passion" or volupté "volupty" where the erotic element predominates. In using nega, Pushkin and his constellation were trying to render the French poetical formulas paresse voluptueuse, mollesse, molles délices, etc. which the English Arcadians had already turned into "soft delights."

Line 8 in the original Russian in Pushkin's manuscript reads kričim: valiái iebióna mat' ("we cry: 'move it, motherfucker!'") At some point valiái "move it" got mauled in publication to pošól "get going." Russian print editions of Pushkin's work censor this line further as kričím: pošól... ("We cry 'Get going...'") leaving the savvy reader to supply the iebióna mat' "motherfucker" on the basis of rhyme and metrical space. In fact, even when Pushkin's use of profanity is being discussed by scholars and the line's actual content needs to be specified, the most editors will allow is kričím: pošól, ie.... m... ("we cry: 'get going, m****rf***er.'") 

Lines 7 and 8 function juxtapositionally. The high-register néga and the adverbial participle preziráia "disdaining" are followed by the quite literally unprintable low-register iebióna mat' "motherfucker." The phrase preziráia len' "disdaining idleness" is a cliché-subversion of the idiom preziráia lest' "disdaining flattery" i.e. the attitude of one who does not deign to humor the ego of others.  The use of obscenity therefore carries a sense of defiance of normal social order. The switch in the following stanza to a non-obscene duraléi is likewise significant, as Pushkin did regard profanity as befitting juvenile circumstances, and was less foul-mouthed as he got older.

In an earlier draft of this translation I rendered stanza 2 as:

At dawn we jump inside the wagon.
Happy to break our necks like glass,
We scorn life's hedonistic languor,

And yell "Man, fuck it! Just haul ass!"

After this stanza was quoted here, I decided revision was in order. 

The Original:

Телега Жизни
А.С. Пушкин

Хоть тяжело подчас в ней бремя,
Телега на ходу легка;
Ямщик лихой, седое время,
Везет, не слезет с облучка.

С утра садимся мы в телегу;
Мы рады голову сломать
И, презирая лень и негу,
Кричим: валяй, ебёна мать!

Но в полдень нет уж той отваги;
Порастрясло нас; нам страшней
И косогоры и овраги;
Кричим: полегче, дуралей!

Катит по-прежнему телега;
Под вечер мы привыкли к ней
И, дремля, едем до ночлега —
А время гонит лошадей.

Tyutchev: Our Age (From Russian)

Our Age
By Fyodor Tyutchev
Translated by A.Z. Foreman

We've seen our spirit, not our flesh, decay.
Man, in despair, on all his anguish dwells.
Out of the soul's dark night he roils for day
But, reaching daylight, grumbles and rebels.

By unbelief bombarded and sucked dry
He has but the unbearable to bear,
Aware of what awaits all things that die,
He thirsts for faith...but doesn't have a prayer

And cannot say, with tears and shattered pride,
However brutally he comes to grief
Against deadbolted doors: "Let me inside!
Lord, I believe! Help Thou my unbelief!" 

The Original:

Наш век

Не плоть, а дух растлился в наши дни,
И человек отчаянно тоскует…
Он к свету рвется из ночной тени́
И, свет обретши, ропщет и бунтует.

Безверием палим и иссушен,
Невыносимое он днесь выносит…
И сознаёт свою погибель он,
И жаждет веры… но о ней не просит…

Не скажет ввек, с молитвой и слезой,
Как ни скорбит перед замкнутой дверью:
«Впусти меня! — Я верю, Боже мой!

Приди на помощь моему неверью!..»